Guest Contributor: Ruby A. Olisemeka, Director of Urban Engagement, Westchester Land Trust
Photos by John Zeiger

What is a vision? It’s a thought or image that captivates the mind, demanding the use of our human creative capacity to bring it into existence. And some visions, when given the right support, can change lives and improve our communities. Once such vision belonged to Louis McCagg, founder of Westchester Land Trust, who fiercely believed in and worked toward a vision of equity.

North Facing Urban Forest, Mount Vernon
Hutchinson River, Mount Vernon

McCagg’s equity work was centered around the power of education. As early as 1957, he recognized inequities in how Black and other disenfranchised people were being educated and spent decades addressing the injustice. In response to the mass fires of 1968–1970 in New York City, McCagg raised funds to develop “street academies” for Black and brown children, opening fifteen schools to fill the gaps left by the failing public education system. He advocated for educational opportunities for women and poor European immigrants at the University of Pittsburgh, and he worked to train impoverished populations in the Appalachian region for public service jobs.

Hutchinson River

McCagg eventually focused his vision of equity onto land and the belief that there should be a balance between conservation and development, which led to the founding of Westchester Land Trust (WLT) in 1988. The organization began with two main goals. The first is to “educate or raise the consciousness of all categories of landowners to think through what they want to do with their land to achieve environmental and economic objectives.” Since then, WLT has grown its presence as a regional land conservation organization, responsible for the protection of 9,200 acres of land in the lower Hudson River Valley region of New York State.

As the new director of urban engagement at Westchester Land Trust, I often think of a statement by Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, a leader of the American civil rights movement: “We, today, stand on the shoulders of our predecessors who have gone before us.” The work I do is a continuation of McCagg’s legacy and initial approach. I seek to embody his spirit, as a student of McCagg’s work, expanding upon the vision he brought to existence more than thirty years ago.

The concept of “raising the consciousness” was the core of WLT’s founding and it remains central to our expansion to better serve people without access to land. The so-called “landless,” the disenfranchised, marginalized and disconnected, are the people we need to reach and the people we need to join us in the movement for equity on land. But how can we make meaningful progress in reconnecting Black and brown people with the nature they’ve been intentionally off from due to racist systems of oppression?

Entry Into Enchanted Urban Forest by Hutchinson River

The answer is both beautifully simple and wildly complex at the same time — the way to see ourselves as part of the land is to interact with it. There is no quicker shifter of consciousness than a forest. And there are few better educators than trees.

The forest as teacher is not a new concept amongst Indigenous peoples of every vegetative continent. For millennia, our cultures have told folk stories of sages retreating into forest for spiritual development and healing. While indoor classrooms, books, movies and YouTube videos can be impactful for educating people about our environment, they cannot replace actual immersion in nature.

Western Nook of Urban Forest, Mount Vernon

At Westchester Land Trust we have recommitted our organization to providing access to nature for people who have inequitably been cut off from trees, forests and plants. While we don’t have all the answers yet, inspiring opportunities and possibilities for future projects give us hope.

One effort that embodies this vision is called Kiana, named for a Stockbridge Munsee Mohican term that means “all of us.” This urban riparian forest preservation and restoration project presents a vision of an urban parcel, made up of a forest along the Hutchinson River, which could serve as a nature-based classroom and healing space for the surrounding community.

Although the Kiana concept is in its infancy, we encourage curiosity, excitement and investment about this type of work. Land protection in urban spaces is not always simple, but we must challenge ourselves to think beyond typical avenues. We invite local municipalities, nonprofit organizations, corporate and private funders and individuals to connect with each other to harness the best of our human creativity to bring this and other nature-based initiatives into existence.

From the earliest days of Westchester Land Trust, Louis McCagg knew that people need nature, and that without nature we lose a big part of what it is to be human, a big part of ourselves. We hope you will join us, as an expansive community of nature, humans and life, to care for one another and build the connections that make all of us one.